28 April 2015

Thoughts of the day

1) As before with the gay marriage cases before SCOTUS, I'm not interested in displaying a changed photo status on social media. I don't go in much for symbolism for one, and secondly, I think the case will be basically about the final score (whether it is 6-3 or 5-4) and not the outcome. I don't think any marginal lobbying on twitter or facebook is going to make a difference to the score. Where my (our) focus would need to be is on people who don't think this is an okay change, or at least think it happened too fast, and not on the justices, and finding ways to connect to these people and change their minds or at least understand their objections and help them find ways to live with it now as a disfavored minority. Gay marriage being equal is all but a done deal, if not now by court ruling then very soon by public mandate as demographics shift away from older conservative Christians to younger more progressive Christians (at least on this topic). Now supporters and opponents have to live together and deal with this new reality. This has become a more vital project as court rulings have greatly and rapidly expanded the equal recognition of homosexual couples at a more rapid pace than I would have thought likely. I regard that as a good thing that it has, and that it likely will continue. But the fact remains there is still bitter intolerance and hatred present among a subset of the population, and considerably larger population that is uncertain or uneasy about these changes and what they will mean either from prejudices or ignorance of the issues at hand, and all of that will continue to need to be moderated even with these changes in legal status as applied to marriage and marriage contract benefits coming swiftly.

The gay rights cause seems to be winning something in my lifetime and bully for that as it is a much needed change in social tolerance and respect for individuals and their liberties. I've written or spoken generally in support of such a change for years (with a detour into the fantastical realm of the government not recognizing marriages at all and letting people make private contracts as they see fit, but still not proclaiming that any government or government official should ignore or refuse those contracts when made between same-sex couples). It's also impacting a much smaller number of people ultimately than some other issues that often dominate my attention, so I don't have as much to say on it now that progress is being made. Like whether we as Americans are being policed or occupied in our own communities. A topic where progress is much more diffident and uncertain.

2) Baltimore.

On the one hand, I'm not a big fan of riots. They're generally destructive to the city involved, rarely raise the value of the underlying issues causing people to generate mayhem or to demonstrate angrily (but peacefully), and don't seem to change people's minds regarding the strangeness of seeing APCs and police decked out like they're invading Iraq wandering through American cities. Very little good comes of it. They are a point of protesting when people feel they are rendered voiceless and a means of relieving their need for aggression against this frustration. But that's not generally what people hear and it often drowns out the message as a result. Typically people not involved but necessary to act oversimplify the basis for protests and riots down to single, isolated, circumstantial incidents (bad apples) rather than the systematic problems which put thousands of people in a position to demonstrate angrily.

So. On the other hand. I regard the need for police reforms on militarization of equipment, aggression toward the public in the form of escalation and authoritarianism rather than de-escalation and public service, violence and brutality viewed as unacceptable and unfortunate outcomes rather than excused as "by the book" , methods of dismissal or penalty for brutality and mayhem by police, penalties for violations of civil rights and unwarranted arrests (for example, "resisting arrest" should be abolished as a possible charge), and so on as very high on my list of "things I want to see changed positively in my lifetime".

One of the major problems during previous riots in Missouri (Ferguson), was that there was a perception among many Americans that this was all stemming from a single incident of violence or brutality by police (in that case, Michael Brown being shot and killed, also Eric Garner being strangled to death by a chokehold in NYC). Such shootings or killings of citizens by police are fairly common, distressingly so in fact. There's a fairly reliable crowdsourcing effort putting the number over 1200 per year of people killed by police. Official government statistics, which have accountability and reporting/self-reporting problems, have been recently revised upward from around 400 to around 800. But even if it were only at 400, this should be regarded as a serious problem worthy of scrutiny and reform in our methods of policing, if not a serious failure of how we police and enforce laws more broadly or an indictment of our cultural preferences for violence. That's at least 1 person per day killed by a police officer somewhere in the country, and probably closer to 3 people per day.

Most other developed nations do not kill that many people in a year via their police forces. We do so every day. Even if that were the sole impetus behind the protests and riots, it should be a cause in which we should be concerned that this is the result of our choices and policies for police.

But it wasn't just about cops shooting or killing people and a perception that they will always get away with it. Baltimore is a large city, with thousands of police officers. Ferguson is a modest suburb, with a few dozen officers. Both however have been investigated by the Department of Justice. And both find similarly disturbing behavior on the part of police officers in their treatment of residents, particularly on racial divisions. Violence and brutality are far more common than should be tolerated as necessary. Police are often seen much more as an occupying army in many parts of these communities than a helpful and reliable ally in a fight against crime, with their purpose being to rack up fines in Ferguson, and to roust and harass residents for petty, seemingly arbitrary, infractions in both cities.

This is not just the fault of police. The public has demanded it as well. The public, certainly among the well-to-do middle class white Americans, believes crime is much higher than it actually is as a risk and danger, and often sees police responses as capable and justified. Their interactions with police are often limited to polite but unpleasant traffic tickets and fines, not flashbang grenades in the window and family dogs being shot, and your person detained and questioned without probable cause on a weekly basis (if not more often). So there's an understandable division in how the police are interpreted. There are communities where violence and crime are serious problems requiring a firm police intervention, but these are not resembling the types of criminal actions we commonly are seeing resulting in violent actions by police. Walter Scott was shot because he faced possible arrest for not paying child support payments and fled from police (shooting someone who merely runs away is, of course, not considered kosher under the law, and the officer involved is facing a murder charge, thanks mostly to a citizen cell phone recording the incident). Freddie Gray was killed in part because of a series of low-level arrests for drug enforcement laws and because he ran after looking at a cop (he was arrested, it seems, because he supposedly had a knife which he was not wielding aggressively at anyone at the time or likely visible at all to the public). Michael Brown as an incident seems to have started because he was walking in the street. Eric Garner was killed while being arrested for selling loose (untaxed) cigarettes. At best, none of these cases represents enormous threat to safety of other people and yet all apparently allowed us to deploy violence to enforce these laws.

A better, more torturous example of how this indicts the public though is available. Tamir Rice and John Crawford were killed basically for holding air guns in an unwise manner. What seems to have aggravated these last two was the public response to seeing a young black male holding what appeared to be a fire arm and doing so in what seemed like a strange way. Rice was pointing it at passerbys in the park he was in, but the only reported call suggests that they knew or suspected it was a prank and a toy gun. Crawford sounded like the caller greatly exaggerated the threat as there doesn't appear to be much evidence he was threatening or menacing anyone and in any case, police fired upon him while he was talking on a cell phone and not threatening anyone. In both cases, police response was aggressive, moderated for what we might think appropriate for a terrorist incident or a potential hostage crisis. This is typical training for aggressive uses of forces and the escalation of violence rather than the de-escalation allowing everyone to at least be arrested peacefully. Militarized high-risk raids on homes are typically undertaken rather than detaining someone by knocking on the door or at or coming to or from work, as a more widespread example of this type of thinking. These are the most adverse risks and consequences of what is demanded of police to enforce and against whom (mostly poorer minorities).

The most common risks however are just as poisonous in their effects upon a community. A person who is arrested risks losing a job that sustains them and risks difficulty obtaining a new one. They generate costs for themselves in the case should it proceed to court (many do not), and additional costs  in time and money if it should go to trial (most convictions are arbitrated without a jury). Most people who are being detained, arrested, and charged in Baltimore and Ferguson and hundreds of other cities cannot afford either the time or the money for their infractions, which makes it more difficult for them to properly defend themselves or moderate and navigate the penalties to something appropriate for their crime. If they go to jail or prison for any extended period of time, they then have a criminal record, which further makes it difficult to re-integrate into society. Many jobs now require occupational licenses or at least background checks, which frown upon criminal records. All of this makes it difficult to maintain a respectable job. If someone is being arrested for armed robbery, that's rather understandable that it should be punished with an inconvenience like this. But many arrests are trivial, for example drug possession charges or "disorderly conduct" or "resisting arrest" or easily chalked up to bias and misunderstanding and essentially are arbitrary crimes (most people in prison, less so). The cost of this is not inconsequential in the economic disruption it causes a community in the form of fines, bail money, loans, and lost time and productivity. In many communities, such penalties begin racking up with teenagers (if not earlier, Tamir Rice was not even that old), costing gains from education as well, or leading kids to abandon education entirely as too adversarial rather than beneficial. Crime imposes such costs as well, but fighting it should not.

Many states (and juries and public opinion) likewise frown upon someone who has a prior criminal record by perceiving violence against such people by police more likely justified, or should they be arrested again perceive that as justification for additional and much more severe penalties in any new infraction, or perceive it as more likely they are guilty of whatever they are accused of owing to their prior recklessness. All of this makes it more likely that people may repeat offenses, or end up back in prison, or out of work and willing to do shady or outright hazardous things to generate a living. If a community sees police as an enemy, not an ally, and yet demands a response to its problems with crime, that is the fault of the police and the communities that fund such forces and provide them with missions and arms through the force of law.

I propose to resolve this issue we should consider the following:
a) Whether all of the laws we want enforced are justifiable if they should result in the death or injury of fellow citizens who may be suspected of violating them by police. If they are not, we should reconsider whether the force of law is the appropriate vehicle for amending or coercing bad behavior as this is a risk of having laws on the books. Many things which are laws in my opinion should not be written into legal code for this reason. For example, there is evidence that a charge like "resisting arrest" is essentially code for "I beat someone up" when used by police as it is typically used by a very small cohort of police, and that that cohort in turn shows a higher likelihood of being accused of brutality or excessive force (in these or other cases).

b) Whether or when enforcing the law should permit violence in defence of a community as a minimum necessity of use of force rather than aggressive tactics and maximum force. Self-defence is typically regarded as an acceptable moral landscape, as is the defence of others against violence. A large number of these controversial cases appear to be based more around compliance to authority rather than aggression. Pepper spray or other non-lethal weapons (tasers especially) get used pretty casually under the logic that a use of force that doesn't kill someone is justified to get them to obey commands or to punish non-compliance. It sounds likely Gray's death may have been related to rough car rides in the back of a police van as a "disciplinary" practice, under a similar vein. Defending other people is an acceptable use of violence under the law. Meting out extra-judicial penalties for someone being an asshole or having a bad attitude toward a cop is not.

c) What level of armament is appropriate or necessary for police to carry out a minimum necessity of violence. This includes uses of "non-lethal" force. A baton or even a fist can still kill someone. So can a taser or a flashbang grenade or even pepper spray. A gun isn't necessary to kill a suspected criminal. This means we should think very carefully about use of force protocols as a society for the people we empower to enforce laws, but also think very carefully about what weapons they are given to do so, and how they will be used or trained for. An APC or submachine guns seem to serve very little purpose in this process. There's little evidence they're even that useful for riot control (the best available practices there should be to aim to prevent the riot from starting in the first place).

25 April 2015

A ridiculous piece of cloth

Most people who have encountered writings of mine over the years will know I am not much sympathetic to nationalistic displays. Indeed, the primary reason I oppose the pledge of allegiance isn't the "under god" element, but the odious nature of having children recite some words presenting themselves as aligned with the government of the state and its goals (this was its initial purpose was to force immigrants to declare themselves loyal subjects of the American nation-state, the god stuff came much later).

I am not unsympathetic to the idea that people should try to avoid being offensive to others. I find it is often counter productive or at least not that persuasive versus the amount of negative attention it creates. This applies to people protesting abortions or protesting police shootings, gay weddings, or whatever (the ideological disposition of the protest is irrelevant). It doesn't mean it is never effective and it does not mean I would prefer to see offensiveness stamped out with coercive forces, like threats of violence, deportation, job losses, etc. Simple disagreements over the manner and content of expressions by other people, even if they are offensive to other parties, are not really sufficient to place people in diametric conflicts that they need to be removed permanently from each other. These disagreements can be investigated, and at times where people obviously diverge from each other's basic worldviews, perhaps then a polite removal from each other's company suffices. On social media, block-banning people for whom there appears to be a permanent state of disagreement and disharmony works quite well enough to ignore people who would needlessly be getting up the blood pressure to work up on a topic.

I don't have much tolerance for most personal expressions of sexism and, especially, racism, but I'd at least engage the topic first to assure that is the basis of these expressions is some deeply held position about the nature of gender or racial disparities rather than a poorly tasted joke or some other implicit bias that could be confronted and identified, or perhaps a general ignorance of the subject being argued on which it came up in the first place. I also don't have much tolerance for expressions of nationalism (again, as I've repeatedly indicated, distinguished from patriotism), and some varieties of religious expression. Neither to me is particularly interesting to investigate very deeply.

Nevertheless, none of this inspires me to say that my disinterest or disagreement means that anyone evincing support of these opinions, perspectives, or beliefs should be silenced and shunned by everyone every where. I can sometimes find fault with the manner of expression, if it constitutes harassment of others for example or otherwise presents as menacing and threatening behavior. But this is potentially harmful behavior, not speech and expression. People invoking in your face methods of demonstration (burning a flag, putting up signs with dead fetal tissue, blasphemy of religious beliefs, "foul-mouthed" language, etc) doesn't rise to this level. It is annoying. Perhaps disturbing to some. Disturbed sensibilities are however often the point of such activities. Attracting attention in order to have a wider audience of people paying heed to your words and actions is the goal.

There are several ways to respond to this I find well below the common public's reactions demanding violence and arrest or other criminal or civil penalties.

1) Ignore it. If the goal is to attract attention, deny the attention that is sought. Change the channel, look away, listen to something else, engage a friend in conversation, find something else to do with your time in general. I find much of the things people are that worked up about to protest I don't care very much about, or at least, don't care very much that they are worked up about it and don't think it will amount to very much mind-changing on the issue if I do care very much about it. This makes most of it fairly easy to ignore and move on with my day. There are rare exceptions. It's really easy on the internet. Putting up a blanket status update about how awful people are to each other in comment sections or message boards/threads is sufficient to excise any reaction that occurs to the perspective of the general public on some topic for which they are ill-equipped to argue with one another.

2) Put forward one's own point of view. Counter-protest in other words. Try to persuade or argue with an unconcerned majority why they should find the other side of people to be nutcases and agree with you and your wise ideas instead about a particular problem or what should be done about it.

3) Confront people doing things you find offensive and try to find out why they do so. People displaying actions of blasphemy toward a nation-state by torching that country's flag or standing on it, etc, are typically provoking the idea that something is, in their mind and perspective at least, deeply wrong with that country and its operations as a people or legal state. They have a perspective and point of view they are trying to get attention for and speak upon. The disagreement one has may only be about their methods of expression rather than the core of the message. Listening to other people has the probability that one can learn something, or find a topic worth investigating further.

4) Confront people doing things that are found offensive and mock them. "Offend back". This isn't very respectful and polite and probably will make you look like an asshole too, but it has the possible effect of getting people to reconsider their tactics of discourse. (Don't threaten them or harass them. Mock/ridicule/laugh at, not endanger, is the suggestion here). In general the idea would be to communicate that this person is being offensive (and doing so stupidly and unproductively). I suppose it has the effect of being possibly satisfying on an emotional level, briefly, for reacting to the offense in kind.

And so on. None of this requires we provide people with the abject horror and displeasure they may intend for our reactions, or that we respond with violence and intolerance. Nor that we are somehow providing tacit agreement through our silence and permissiveness for free expression. Nor even that we should punish people who have made unpleasant mediums or content of expression by expelling them from polite society for any single transgression of speech and expression and demand they be removed from their jobs or company position. Economic boycotts have their place in response to acts of discrimination. Responses to people committing acts of fraud or spreading salacious falsehoods about others in public also have considerable merit to do likewise. But a general expression of opinion on a matter of religious or political construction is not fraud or salacious falsehood on the level of libel or slander. No matter how offensively it is presented.

22 April 2015

Cultural note

Daredevil. It's pretty good on balance. Some spoilers.


The fighting sequences, especially some of the earliest ones are excellent. The single shot sequence fight is on par with some of the best choreographed fighting in any film (Oldboy, the Korean version, is typically looked at as one of the standards there). It's not as long as the single shot in True Detective last year, but that didn't require as many beats in a concentrated arc either. Most of the Marvel fights revolve around a lot of CGI characters (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor) doing CGI things, which are fun, sometimes even a comic relief (Hulk smashing the puny god Loki for example) but not the same as watching actual human beings doing moderately impressive things and taking the physical and emotional punishment of trying to do so. One exception was the fights and stunts in Winter Soldier, which were a lot crisper and easier to follow as a result. This was generally better than that with the caveat that most of them took place in often poorly lit sequences involving a guy in a dark set of clothes. These were still usually much better than most of Batman's fights in the Nolan movies, by a comparison to a darkly lit and ominous detective/crime fighter. It looks very smooth and well-thought out as a demonstration of a skilled hand-to-hand fighter (occasionally using clubs and improvised throwing weapons).

The darkness itself comes off as almost like a character at times. The way lighting and shots are constructed gives a feeling of almost perpetual night to much of the scenes. Since the main character is a blind guy, I would assume this is partly deliberate as a nod to that on top of the rather grim story line being itself an oppressive variety of darkness.

There's not very much of the campy-self-referential humor of the movie (which was basically a series of set piece fights rather than a film with a plot), or the other Marvel properties. There's some, but not much. It's way darker and bloodier than almost anything comic book related anywhere Watchmen is a much closer proxy universe than Guardians of the Galaxy. Even the Nolan Batman trilogy is much closer really. That makes it distinctive from other Marvel projects so far. There are a few tie-ins to the broader Marvel universe (a couple references to Hulk/Thor/Stark), but it basically stands on its own territory and stakes it out instead.

One element that's heavily involved in the plot is that Daredevil is basically a blind guy who moves pretty well in a fight and has very evolved senses as a superpower that help him dodge or anticipate threats. He does not have a suit of armor that makes him invincible against bullets and knives, or carry a magical hammer and come from another realm. So he gets beat up and stabbed and otherwise wounded much more easily. That means there's a lot of potential consequences and risks to when he wanders into a fight. It provides a touch of realism or at least pragmatism to the story line.

The performance for Fisk feels like it draws a bit on Brando's Kurtz/Vito Corleone, but with more violence of his own. There's a reasonably interesting dichotomy between what Murdock/Daredevil sounds like and what Kingpin/Fisk sound like in their vision and even possession of the city over which they are contesting each other, and also how both seem to have these disparate parts of their grand versions of idealism internally feuding with a darker pragmatic approach. This is distinguished from the Joker-Batman dichotomy because at no point does a version of the world Batman is seeking to create resemble the version of Joker's even though their methods differ. When the cultural views of the villain and hero look not so far apart, things get blurry and dark as to whether their methods are justified (Catwoman vs Batman is more like this example).

Stick's cameo appearance was funny. In part because there's suddenly a cynical asshole (brutally cruel almost) in the show countering all these idealistic crusaders. That and a couple other bits should set up a second season nicely as well with an obvious set of new villains, on top of the enemies he'd already have made from season 1.

Mixed or bad stuff

Daredevil as a character that they're drawing on is the Frank Miller early 1980s version. When NYC was a crime-ridden hellscape essentially (that also appears heavily in the Batman universe). While aspects of the dysfunctional governance of a large city-state still fit the times today, for example the possibility of corruption or violence from police sitting on the throat of a city rather than a helpful agent guarding the city fits in nicely with stories like Cleveland or Ferguson or Miami Gardens, the idea of a city that is so distraught and downtrodden that it requires not just a vigilante, but a brutal vigilante on the scale that the Miller version of Daredevil represents is missing now as there are few places where crime is that desperate a social ill that vigilantes become automatic heroes. Bernhard Goetz was considered a hero at the time by many people for the subway shooting he committed. Now he's looked on a little differently (and apparently feuding with home squirrel care advice and requirements). The show by dint of this grimmer reality gets to embrace a much darker version of anti-hero than usual. Which is certainly interesting as a means of cultural exploration, but presents certain challenges.

Most notably he essentially tortures almost every criminal/corrupt cop he meets. Since DD can basically act as a human lie detector, this seems like a very strange way to get information is to beat it out of people (and in a couple of cases, stab it out as well). To be sure one might often need to fight people in combat when dealing with criminals as a vigilante and there's plenty of that "ordinary" violence in the series, this is different. One of the most successful elements to me of the Nolan Batman universe is that this isn't demonstrated as a very effective means of getting the information he needs. Not only does Batman show up at one point to prevent someone else from torturing a suspect, when he does so himself, he doesn't typically get what he needs (Joker deliberately lies to him, and the mob basically tells him off eventually instead of giving him anything). What he does instead is employ a lot of complicated and often high-tech detective tools in order to figure out what's going on and who is behind it, for which some these tools and methods have their own questionable ethics. There's a few nods to this with Daredevil where he uses his sensory abilities to figure things out, but not many so far. I'd be more interested in the moral or ethical complications of a man who can basically determine if anyone is lying at a whim or effectively spy on anyone they want, and so on. One of the background themes of X-Men is the morality of having someone like Charles Xavier around and basically trusting that he will use his powers ethically and instruct others to do likewise, which isn't something everyone trusts to be the case. That becomes a challenging hypothetical ethical argument to entertain. The moral juice available from watching someone somehow magically decide someone is evil and then beat them up for information purposes so they can go find someone more important to beat up instead is much less compelling. Presumably it carries a degree of emotional satisfaction to the "eye for an eye" type crowd. It doesn't do much for me. The degree of brutality in the criminals being depicted is to be somewhat expected (kidnapping children, execution via car door slams, escape from prison using rib bone shards, etc), and some degree of response makes sense. But there isn't a very long examination of whether the lengths gone to are too far. There's only a hint of a conscience to these questions despite an overtone of religious examination supposedly going on.

Foggy isn't typically very interesting as either a foil for Murdock's better half idealism or as a comic relief character. Page comes off as more interesting mostly because we never really see her back story (it's implied at several points that she has had an... interesting life). Foggy's we see, but it's basically just "here's this guy Matt hangs out with because they were college roommates". He does however seem more practically engaged in the process of fighting worthy court battles, translating this idealism into legal battles rather than fisticuffs in the dark corners of the city. Maybe that will play out better for Murdock over time, but he spent most of the season scrambling over rooftops engaging in fisticuffs, so it doesn't interact as much as it could. They also seem to have reconciled this difference rather too casually.

14 April 2015

Hawk is a hawk

I'm seeing some recycling of the idea that Clinton is not a hawk or not basically a neoconservative on foreign policy issues. To the literal extent this is true. She's not likely to be as rhetorically bold or nonsensical and aggressive as a Rick Santorum or Marco Rubio and on a few policy choices (Cuba maybe a key example) she might be much less ridiculous and less useless than the GOP alternatives. Nevertheless, there are several major problems with the arguments being used.

1) Judge her on her record, not her rhetoric. Most of her opponents have little or no record at all on IR either. At best, they've been in the Senate long enough for issues like Libya, Syria, Iran, Cuba, and ISIS to come up. None of those were as clear and decisive however as "I voted for the Iraq War" and most have not resulted in any actions of any kind by the Senate. On a few occasions, Syria for example, even someone like Rubio opposed military action and voted accordingly.

Rhetoric is one way to assess what kinds of goals political figures have on international issues when we don't have much in the way of record. She also exercises a good deal more choice over what she says she might do than what she actually will do and can choose to portray her preferences as more dovish or diplomatic than she does. That she does not do so should be seen as suggestive of more hawkish preferences in our international affairs, even if she shades these with some occasionally prudent diplomacy that her rivals may not (Cuba). She isn't shading her position on Iran in that way for example as she apparently was insistent on a much stronger and more restrictive deal than the one that was possible (and thereby insistent on no deal at all, with no international monitoring instead of a good deal of it).

2) That record isn't as instructive as we should think because it derives from political calculations or some such. Eg, other people had voted for the first Iraq war and it helped their chances of political success later on.

The problem with that line of argument is that the first Iraq war was a very different geopolitical environment. We had regional support and allies, we had international allies, and most importantly, we had a fairly limited and easily decided goal in what we were declaring our interest to perform. We weren't going in to topple a heinous regime and attempt to construct or reconstruct the diplomatic and democratic institutions necessary for a modern nation-state to prosper and co-exist with western ideals. We were going to kick them out of an occupied nation-state that bordered them and possessed substantial quantities of a vital strategic and economic resource (oil). That's a fairly prudent reason by national interest standards to go to a war (protection of economic hegemony and protection of an international standard of territorial integrity).

The second Iraq war did not carry these advantages with it and this was clear to any rational observer at the time that not only did it not have these advantages, it carried considerable and obvious risks of not succeeding, certainly not as sufficiently as we were often promised would be the case. I said as much to as many people as cared to listen at the time. The world is filled with terrible dictators and governments doing horrible things to the populations of the countries they control. Our ability to first destabilize these and then replace them with stable democratically elected and guaranteed systems of government should be viewed as an enterprise not to be undertaken lightly however as the evidence suggests that we have a very limited capability to carry this mission out. Of such missions in the past 25 years, the only one I would regard as a "success" would be Serbia, and that had more to do with turning over the leadership of the country to international tribunals than a ground occupation. South Sudan, Kosovo, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Kosovo, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc all suggest that a strong intervention is potentially likely to carry large risks of blowing up in our faces rather than forging a stable democratic framework or even a stable and prosperous state of any kind (Rwanda seems to be doing better 20 years on, but this is partly because the conflict that started there moved to the DRC, which descended into a massive civil war killing an order of magnitude more people than were killed in Rwanda).

Favoring a predictably disastrous ground occupation therefore should be looked upon as a black mark upon one's history of policy decisions. Even favoring an energetic air campaign supposedly on behalf of others should be looked at as an expensive luxury rather than a basis for sound international relationships and a means of crafting a stable, free, and prosperous global community.

If the political calculations that people make on behalf of the decision to bomb or invade other nation states is being made from the point of view that it will cynically advance a political career rather than whether it advances or defends some vital national interest this is not exactly an endearing argument anyway.

3) Why does any of this matter?

I'm being told by various conservative pundits, and what looks like some of the eventual Republican strategy, is that this will somehow become an election centered on foreign policy. The problem is that on actual policy grounds, there is not that big of a difference between Clinton and most of the GOP field. The lone exceptions are Rand Paul (generally to her left on IR and national security issues, and very unlikely to be the nominee) and people like Rubio or Santorum who are more hawkish rhetorically and tone (but rarely that much farther to the right in actual policies). Everyone else seems to be basically hawkish at similar levels or not a viable foreign policy candidate anyway if that's the intention (Cruz, Huckabee, Bush, Walker. Three of these are/were governors and Cruz's main drum in the Senate has been religion and Obama, not Iran and the Pentagon). So if this is their supposed winning strategy, I do not see it working out all that well anyway. Trying to run an IR election against a former Secretary of State who was reasonably successful in that role (by Washington standards) who has a reasonably hawkish track record for a Washington politician (and a very hawkish one for a Democrat) is an extremely stupid idea already on its face before considering a bigger problem: it's not likely to be an election decided on foreign policy grounds. It's not even that likely to be a consideration for most voters.

I'm dubious that this will be an election centering on IR issues simply because such elections are rare and generally focused on very large IR issues (like declared or potential wars). 2004 was sort of in this category (I think the rhetoric that Iraq decided it was overplayed). 1916 and 1940 meanwhile are obvious. 1952 would be another likely case. And then 1968. And that's about it. Most voters pay little attention to brush fires and minor interventions, by this standard. And in any case most voters are broadly in support of diplomatic approaches to the Iranian situation, a position Clinton is likely to take at least rhetorically, mostly don't care about what we do to or with Cuba anymore, even in Florida and even among the Cuban expat community which now has second and third generation voters who don't care either, and while the public are not fond of ISIS, they also don't seem to want us putting (more) troops back in Iraq to deal with them on the ground. These positions are not sellers and they are broadly speaking, what the GOP is selling (again, other than Rand Paul). Clinton's not so stupid about her interventionist tendencies to go against the general public during an election cycle. Which is to her credit. Meanwhile, most voters in most cycles tend to go with economic conditions or domestic policy concerns (things like crime or civil liberties/social policies issues). Most of which Presidents don't have much control over anyway, meaning this is a dumb approach to electing Presidents, but it is the approach people have typically taken. Barring a recession (a possibility, but still somewhat unlikely given the monetary policy positions at present), we're not likely to see much of a shift on these grounds that make it that favorable for Republicans (or for Clinton either), but we're also not likely to see much that makes it unfavorable for Clinton either, meaning she probably wins on an incumbency bias and then some sort of populist economic message talking about income inequality and the middle class, and on IR she probably crushes whoever gets picked up (just as Obama crushed Romney on that front).

08 April 2015

Ignorance is not a merit badge

This isn't a complaint about any one in particular. I've become frustrated by an increasing number of discussions and debates and political topics where I observe that one or both sides, or a variety of their participants appear to not understand the topic. But still wish to fan their ill-considered opinion into the fray. Much of this is, I think, that most of us do not know very much about either the other side, or the people about whom such fights are being waged. It's also very cheap to air an opinion into the fray and there's often very few interlocutors who will know enough to push back.

An example: abortion. Most of us probably do know someone who has had an abortion, or someone who has had a partner/spouse who did. But most of us don't discuss it, either if it occurs, or go about indiscreetly inquiring about it. It's not exactly a topic that comes up and isn't liable to be a very comfortable topic to discuss. Many women or families that have them are likely to not want to discuss it on the (reasonable) fear that some number of people will be extremely judgmental. They will prefer to remain friends or have quiet family dinners than to discuss this activity and decision with others on the risk that they will decide this is some unforgivable behavior. Or it will have happened so long ago as to be seen as immaterial. Similarly, it is a comfortable assumption to believe that abortion is something that "other people, not like myself" do, and probably seen as impolite to presume that it is occurring among the circle of associates we have collected and ask about it.

All of that means that abortion politics and debates about abortion center largely on these vague assumptions about who is getting abortions, vague assumptions about why they occur, and the various preconceptions one has about those decisions, how they are made, who makes them, and what we should do about it. In fact, these would be much simpler discourses if we know or could conceive of someone we know who did in fact get an abortion. Instead of these amorphous characters upon which we may pile our assumptions made from ignorance. We can, in the absence of this personal experience, rely on data that is collected. A composite may be made. But that will still be a stranger that we imagine. Not a friend. Or a former classmate. A former teacher. A former lover. And so on through the range of possibilities.

Throughout discussions over the last several years, I have noticed this ignorance of the topic becoming a serious problem for how people are informing their political decisions or activism, or how they are discussing issues therein with others. People are unaware of how often police shoot or assault suspects (part of this is that US police forces do not keep proper statistics of course). How often they raid people's homes in full tactical military gear (again, most states don't keep or report this information). How often those raids find not only few or no illegal drugs (the most common basis for such acts), but no weapons either (the most common basis for why they needed the aggressive military raid). How often police are killed or assaulted by suspects (this is tracked, it's been going down). Whether the crime rate is going down (most cities it has, by a lot). People are unaware of why abortions happen or who gets them. Or who has miscarriages and how common those are and whether laws intended to punish and restrict abortions might not also punish women who have had miscarriages with criminal investigations. People are unaware that women in lower class or lower income jobs probably won't get the ability or time from their employers to use a breast pump to aid in breastfeeding while at work. Or that they don't have access to basic family leave policies and sufficient income that will allow women to recover mentally or physically from pregnancy if needed and for new parents to spend time with a new child and the time and energy that requires and must return to work very soon after giving birth if they wish to continue to pay bills or keep their job. People are unaware of how Muslims behave. Or atheists. Or even (other) Christians. Or are unaware that their own grandparents might be in favor of gay weddings. Or that they are not. People are unaware of what gun owners are like and why they want to have and keep guns (or unaware of why other people might have some reasonable fear of guns). People are unaware that putting calorie counts on fast food doesn't make most people order healthier; it might work the opposite way even. Or that paying for health care more easily doesn't make people go to an actual doctor for their health needs; they still go to the emergency room instead, maybe because they don't have time to schedule appointments during working hours. People are unaware of the actual time and energy involved in being working poor in our society and the impact this has on decision making or the ability to do ordinary "middle class" things, or the moral and ethical decisions that may be altered because of the need to rely on others for basic status and survival purposes. People are unaware of others in many contexts.

And yet we all presume to know a great deal and presume that other people should not only know these things that we think we know, but that they should behave as we do, with our different incentives and experiences left unexamined.

From observing and talking to other people, I think there are two basic roots to this problem

1) The belief that other people are fundamentally "like me". I do not generally share this problem. It exists for me, but it is not as infectious an idea as I can easily find and deliberately push forward things that make me "different" and will challenge this assumption when others care to look at it. I admit and sometimes revel in the fact that I am an odd ball outsider observing other people. My politics are often more radical. I won't vote for candidates I can't support in good conscience (most people vote for the lesser of two weevils. Or it is evils. I'm not really sure what they're implying I should be doing). I don't practice any religious or spiritual traditions. Consequently from this "outsider" perch, my perspective shows me that there isn't as much of a difference between Christians and Muslims (or Scientologists even). Or from Democrats or Republicans (or libertarians). From heterosexuals and homosexuals. Or from Bob and Linda. Most people are pretty depressingly normal once you get to know them, even if they believe or say wacky things sometimes. They have to be very strange indeed to be surprising. Maybe some things or people are worse and more destructive than others or other things are better and more apt to form a prosperous and pleasant environment in which to live and work, but they're not so fundamentally distinct to be unrecognizable. (That in itself is depressing, in that these supposedly very distinct worlds can collide and destroy very easily what is built because they aren't coming from places that are very far apart most of the time).

Most of humanity seems instead to assume that other people they know and associate with fundamentally agree with them on many things rather than admit this possibility that they might be "weirdos". Sure maybe Bob likes the Yankees or sometimes votes for Democrats. Or maybe Linda has a better job. Or whatever. Basic worldviews are in alignment. Basic outlooks and perspectives. Basic status and welfare is generally similar. So we assume they're like us and that they think and agree with us on many points. On many points, that's maybe true. We do have friends that are often more like us than not. Our families are usually like us. But we aren't clones. We don't spend the time to investigate these distinctions. We do not listen, and we do not ask. We've assumed we already know all we need to and that what we don't know won't be that shocking.

Note: This doesn't mean that all people are similar and same in their quirks and oddness, rather that our odd quirks aren't usually that distressing or that weird to isolate us. The key is that most of us don't bother to consider they are there at all in other people despite that we may spend a lot of our time concealing or otherwise dealing with our own quirks.

2) The lack of networks for most of us for accessing people who are "others". If we are white, we don't have many black friends. If we are rich, we do not have many poor friends. If we are Christian, we probably have few atheist friends. And so on into less pleasant circumstances for some of us (these aren't equivalent categories but rather examples of things we don't like to consider: we don't know of the women who have had an abortion, we don't know any Scientologists, we don't know any Neo-Nazis, we don't know Young Earth Creationists). And we lack the imagination to perceive how that may (or whether it should) change. There is little or no percentage or gain perceived. There is more to be gained by more tightly winding our way up. Not by looking around at the people around us that are "in the way" and aren't part of the group.

Some of those "others" may actually be distasteful and unpleasant. That's to be expected. We are also encouraged, in order to keep and earn some respectability, not to know and associate with of many of these unpleasant groups where they are in public disfavor. Knowing someone who is explicitly racist or sexist is uncomfortable (for some people, even implicit expression of biases is uncomfortable and worthy of challenge). It probably should be, or at least be pushed back upon and challenged where it is encountered, as there seems to be little benefit to such practices and demands made by racists or sexists if enacted where they are made widely and openly without any social consequence. Knowing a woman who has had an abortion is also probably uncomfortable for many people. Maybe it should not be. Knowing someone who has been arrested? Knowing people who are serving in the military? Knowing politicians trying to get elected? Cops trying to uphold law and order? And so on. We should not pretend that these are people totally alien to us, any more than they should toward us. Often this is the framework that emerges. Christians versus atheists. Cops versus the general public. Politicians toward the public and each other. These frameworks of intense opposition are not obviously and necessarily helpful. They are easy ways of discussing a debate that we know little about because we probably know little about the relatively small number people on the other end of it, or the many more people who are observing this debate with only partial interest and investment of time and attention, or even and most importantly the people whose actual lives are going to be impacted by what, if anything, comes out of our discourse and elegant arguments and shouting matches.

Perhaps a different approach would help. If a state wants to pass a law that might be seen as permitting discrimination, maybe it would be useful to have the voices of people who might be discriminated against involved in the discussion and formation of such laws to be heard and discussed even if in opposition to their crafting and language. Or a state wants to pass a law that might restrict access to abortion, perhaps women, families, and doctors should be consulted. Or perhaps if we're going to form a set of international sanctions upon a country, we could then talk to them to see if we can find ways to accommodate both sides demands in a reasonable manner. These are not complicated steps but they are apparently difficult to achieve. We would benefit by having to interact more with actual people once in a while.

The world isn't a zero sum game. One of the prices of living in a pluralistic and highly elastic (and thereby unequal society) is that eventually and sometimes the various disparate parts start clawing at each other. Sometimes these disagreements become fundamental and impossible to work around. But one of the benefits of living in such a society is that there are opportunities to find ways to prevent that, for people to all prosper and get what they want or need. They don't even need to get along or like each other that much at all for that to happen. A very modest level of respect of the identity and intentions of others suffices.

An exercise perhaps to help. Start with the assumption that you do not know what they are thinking, what they have done, and what they wish to do and why, and that maybe you should investigate that more before doing things that might effect them. Or if that's too much, try to imagine that someone you know closely is like this person. How might that impact your thinking? Or your friendship or work relationship or marriage? A little humility and a little awareness of ignorance in some of these debates might open the floor to more opinions and more knowledge.

04 April 2015


So. On to more pressing business.

I've been following the Iran sanctions and negotiations with some interest for months. Some thoughts

It has been a stated position that Iran has had an interest in pursuing a nuclear programme and weapons associated with it for about 3 decades now. They've had one going back to the 70s in the Shah days (with the help of the Israelis actually at that point, paradoxically).

Supposedly all of this was about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I am dubious. I would submit if it were, an agreement very much like we just obtained would be the best and most plausible way to ensure that not happen. There are more "certain" ways to prevent it, such as annihilate the entire country and its government in particular with a full-scale or tactical nuclear assault or invade it and overturn its government as we did with Iraq, but neither of these are "best" case scenarios (both are extraordinarily messy and not without considerable risk to American security) and neither is worth the cost if we can achieve that outcome peacefully. That is: they are not serious options anyway and persons suggesting that they are should not be taken seriously. In theory we could suppose that our actions in opposition to Iran's purported goals here are only consequential as it regards Iran, but they are not.

One of the main reasons and arguments against a nuclear armed Iran isn't that Iran could exert more diplomatic or regional hegemonic dominance against its rivals. Iran already has the capability to do this (provided it doesn't hamper its economy through mismanagement or its economy isn't hampered by crippling sanctions from abroad). It does not need nuclear weapons to do so, and in fact probably benefits more from an environment where it does not have them. The main argument is that an environment where Iran pursues and achieves nuclear weapons also is an environment where its rivals in the area may do likewise (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey). Considering we are discussing a region of the globe that is highly unstable politically, and contains some number of extremist political or religious groups that are effectively anarchist in IR terms or at least likely to seek to possess such weapons to further their bloody and undesirable goals in the region, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in that region would be a rather noteworthy policy goal to seek to prevent.

We are already aware of reasons that we would prefer such weapons not exist in unstable countries in the form of Pakistan (or many of the post-Soviet republics that turned their weapons held over to Russia). For example, Pakistan's government began moving its nuclear arsenal around on lightly defended trucks because it feared the US would seize or destroy their arsenal if the situation became (more) unstable otherwise. That is not an example of a type of behavior we would want a nuclear armed country to be engaging in.

We are also aware of the lack of use by rogue states. North Korea has had its own weapons for some time. No use has occurred. Iran, while we are told is a highly ridiculous religious entity capable of doing something so self-destructive as to use an arsenal of nuclear weapons as soon as it attained them, is not even in that rather reductive and absurd scenario more strange than North Korea and it provides no evidence that they are likely to use weapons either. It is generally strange to make this assumption that their intention in acquisition is to immediately use them to destroy their rivals. Were they to attempt to do so with say, Israel, they would themselves be immediately destroyed by just the Israeli counterstrike, much less that of other countries. Pakistan and India have had less than cordial relations for decades also and no exchange of nuclear arsenals has yet occurred.

This does not mean that such uses are impossible, but it suggests that the obtaining of nuclear arsenals serves other purposes besides attempting to suicidally annihilate rival states. From a rational perspective, the opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran by countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, the United States, is understandable. Rival nations in possession of destructive weaponry is not a desirable outcome. Opposition to any diplomatic means (by the US and other powerful nation-states) of obtaining that result is more frustrating, but still understandable. What is at stake there isn't a nuclear Iran at all, but rather a more normalized relationship with Iran vis a vis the West. If the US more often listens to Iran than it does, and takes into account its interests more communicatively, instead of only interpreting those interests through the mantras we are told via Israel or Saudi Arabia, or other interlocutors, then the favored nation status of those states diminishes and they would have to compete more for our diplomatic attention and financial or military assistance, and they would be doing so with a rather loathed rival actor in play. In some respects, this reminds me of the British cutting Transatlantic cables from Germany to the US during WW1. They could control the news Americans received and coerce our involvement in a war (that we had little or no stake in). Saudi Arabia and Israel (and Turkey) are not powerless nations, and other Gulf States likewise possess some level of economic and military power that they could align themselves to oppose Iranian attempts at regional dominance, and cooperate with Iran or oppose them where it suits themselves with or without our intervention and constant attention. But through a decades-old level of strife between the US and Iran (and the UK and Iran going farther back), and decades-long level of disconnection and no communication, or means of such, we are in a position where we are left backing much of what the Saudis or Israelis might want, and not determining our interests such as we should have any in the region for ourselves, as we did effectively prior to 1990. Our involvement in the region post Desert Storm seems to have been excessive in response to aggression that could be contained and destroyed from that point with sanctions and offshoring the responsibilities to the local and endangered nation-states. Those states have substantially built up their military capabilities with American or Western hardware and equipment.

There may be diplomatic reasons for the US to involve itself in their regional conflicts (eg, fighting ISIS), but these are not the same as saying that these are going to be our interests in the region. A general hegemonic interest in the region would be to maintain a relative balance of power and stability, and assure the oil-producing states do not go to war with one another or plunge into total chaos. And that's about it. What sounds like the worry is that the Saudi and to a lesser extent the Israeli governments believe we are too busy thinking for ourselves. Perhaps we will err in our thinking, but it would be equally foolish for us to pursue no diplomatic efforts with their rivals to conclude key strategic goals on the basis that such client states believe we should not (when it substantially and overtly benefits them for us not to do so).

More complete thoughts on RFRA

This will be the last I have to write on this. It's sucked up too much attention from the Iran negotiations and police misconduct/shootings stories/studies that I'd prefer to be paying attention to instead as there's very little actually happening.

First. My understanding of the law (the original, not including the clarifying aspect) is that it does not actually protect the baker-florist-photographer example, much less more than that like a hotel denying accommodations, with a religious disclaimer to any discrimination claim. RFRA's primary use was religious practices intersecting with government regulations (traditional drug use, beards, etc) and isn't primarily useful in overriding significant government interests, like discrimination arbitration.

Which is to say that the law as written did not actually accomplish much. Neither the supporters pushing for its passage or the opponents demanding boycotts of the state seemed to have understood this. Suggesting the law was poorly thought out, surely, though that is not that unusual.

The problem there is not the RFRA process, but the lack of anti-discrimination laws that protect homosexuals (and others) from being fired, say. In states like Indiana. In states that have such laws protecting sexual orientation as a class from discrimination, there are generally few claims against businesses for discrimination of services. There are two ways to interpret that

1) There are not many businesses which actually have any basis, much less a religious basis, in being interested in discriminating against their customers or employees on the basis of sexuality. It's actually a fairly expensive way to discriminate for one. Race or even class is generally very easy, religion or sexuality are less so and we should expect them to be less frequent. There are also very strong social signals for employers and businesses not to discriminate against people for sexual orientation. Even for people trying to claim some sort of religious determination suggesting they should.

It is perhaps surprising to some people that even in the presence of RFRA laws, there are not successful lawsuits defending the desire to discriminate, and there are not many such cases, given the rhetoric surrounding this debate.

2) What discrimination does exist is masked by people not stupid enough to claim that the basis for this is "I don't want to serve/employ homosexuals". That is, they find some other reason to claim they won't do so which is much more difficult to prove. They may even do so in an implicit bias way, rather than an explicit "fuck off" kind of manner we are accustomed to legislating. This is to say that there are not very many legal approaches we can take that will alter this variety of behavior. Such approaches would require a great deal of intrusiveness (monitoring a business' schedule to see if they are in fact not available at that time for example), and would otherwise be very expensive ways of reducing the likelihood of such activities.

What all of this comes down to, to me, is a different determination. Generally when the state gets involved, and there are legal remedies and approaches being constructed, I want there to be a very large externality (positive or negative) that is being resolved. This is so there is a certainty that government action is helpful and necessary. If there are widespread instances of restaurants refusing to employ or serve homosexuals in a general sense, this strikes me as a fairly large externality worth resolving as it potentially denies access and opportunity to an entire class of people to the market and there is no right being protected to generally oppress others in this way. Likewise the state should not be interceding in determining which private contracts between consenting adults are or are not marriage. At least in so far as it applies to sexual orientation this is a very small cost (some number of people might be offended), and a very large gain (some number of people's privately preferred associations can be fulfilled and recognized with the same rights and privileges as others when they do so).

Where this is less clear for me is more specialised economic services. A business which is generally open to the public must be fairly accommodating and non-discriminatory, at least so far as general classes of people are concerned (a grocery, a hospital, a hotel, or a restaurant). A business when or which makes fairly individualised services (an attorney, a doctor, a cake maker, etc) has more latitude to say when there will not be services offered. It is in effect, inherently a discriminatory service. A family doctor or an attorney does not have a legal obligation to treat everyone who walks in their doors. We might think it strange that a photographer doesn't serve gay weddings (but will do wedding photography generally), but they may also decide not to serve by doing baby portraits, say, or nude photography. This analogy is not perfect, but the point is that we already allow individual businesses a fairly wide latitude in how they will perform their services. It also means there is a market available for those that will perform those services. So there is a market for people to go do wedding photography, and do so where it involves gay or lesbian couples. In most cities, it would be strange to find that no photographer would do so I suspect. Or no cake baker. Or not one florist. None of these are themselves rights of consumers to expect that we may necessarily engage others to do for us. These are general promises made by businesses to make accommodations for us and vice versa. Most businesses will probably do so. Those that do not are at issue.

What that means removed from the market and the intersection with discrimination lawsuits is that the burden of proof that there is a discrimination proceeding is somewhat higher. Someone who foolishly evinces a (potentially bigoted) desire not to serve certain people, or to do so only for general services and not for others, lowers that bar such that it is easier to prove (as in the pizzeria example in Indiana, which explicitly said they will serve gay persons and couples, except under a hypothetical example of catering a wedding, something that I'm dubious has occurred even for many straight couples).

It also suggests something else however. What that does not necessarily mean is that the only right and proper remedy is that the business should be fined by the government or shuttered and any licenses revoked, and so on. Indeed, even if that is a remedy made available, it does not strike me as the necessary path of resolution. It is not clear, and has not been clear to me for the entirety of this debate, why someone would want to compel someone who has already demonstrated a desire not to work with "people like me" to perform a service that requires them to be creative and involved in the manufacture of food or decoration. I would not be confident in the quality of service I would receive and would think it strange to compel it. Particularly if there are alternatives available who would do so without compulsion. Provided there are alternatives, or alternatives could be manufactured to compete easily enough, it might be enough to identify such businesses that are less participatory and to compete economically through boycotts, or through the normal operation of markets to have less-discriminatory players benefit from those that are paying the cost of discrimination (less business opportunities, or fewer qualified employees, etc). There are limits to the amount of backlash to backlash I would sanction. In that I would not be prepared to say we should do anything to destroy or defame the property or harass the owners and operators or employees. But those owners can be made aware that there are problems with their decisions and that those decisions will have economic and social consequences. Perhaps some number of them will backtrack and decide their ideas about what their religion demands of them are incorrect. On this topic, given the rapid shifts in popular opinion, I would expect that there are many people still racing to catch up with what is and is not considered okay or what is or is not considered a demonstration of their faith as it applies to these questions. It is not clear to me that denying services to a wedding is required by any dogma and that mostly these are people who are in the "ew, gay people can get married" mode of thinking and wildly seeking any justification for that offense that they believe others will tolerate. Most people do not in fact tolerate religious pluralism on this question and there appears to be very limited legal backing for that position.

As to the more general atmosphere, and why these kinds of laws are emerging in the first place. I believe one of the reasons I've taken a more "meh" approach is that I recognize the laws themselves are, in most cases as there are exceptions, actually fairly powerless on these questions of discrimination law and what protections they would provide. But that does not mean that the laws are not representative of some legal or cultural attempt that deserves to be recognized for what it is and what is being attempted (haphazardly and fruitlessly as it is doing). In most cases, the recent attempts to enact RFRA statutes by state legislatures are transparently about the legal recognition being extended to homosexuals through marriage laws being overturned to provide legal equality. Since these legislatures, and a few cases the populations of states, are powerless to prevent this, this is a bizarre attempt to fight a rear guard action. It is itself toothless symbolism. I don't mind the existence of general protections of religious freedoms and favor such laws being passed. But under these circumstances, and with some of the exemptions that more extreme laws than Indiana's more general interpretation of the federal law, one cannot hope to notice that these attempts to demand pluralism are coming from the backing of people who have never demanded pluralism before and indeed, sought to suppress it for decades. Pluralism for me and not for thee is not how it works. To that extent, I think it is wise to oppose any new legislation be authored on this topic of religious liberty and to let things continue to play out in the economic, social, and cultural spheres as much as possible.

Some of the other arguments against such laws strike me as more standard progressive interpretations, which may also explain why I sort of shrugged is I'm more classical liberal than modern. Hobby Lobby for instance gave rise to a belief that "now for-profit companies can have religious beliefs". Which wasn't really what the case did. Aspects of the ruling applied to say this, but the RFRA application was to say the government can intercede to provide its interests if there is a minimal burden, the least restrictive one available, or the interest cannot be satisfied in some other way (which in the case of Hobby Lobby, was the case, the government had already provided an alternative that was less restrictive). This does not seem to me an overly offensive interpretation of reality anyway. Most everyone knows the religious stances of certain business owners (Chik-fil-A for instance), and this is in and of itself not objectionable that they should seek to conduct their business in a manner consistent with those beliefs. Some of those beliefs are objectionable. Which is a key distinction. Not every business which aligns itself with the religious beliefs of its core management and not every practice they undertake provides a direct manner of scrutiny in this way.

Similarly there was an argument that Indiana was different because it protected individuals in private lawsuits (as the New Mexico case was). But this is not actually that unusual either. The original interpretation and debate of RFRA included a lot of discussion surrounding private discrimination, rather than discrimination by the government in the form of "public discrimination". Private discrimination claims are typically introduced and taken up by states rather than pursued by those private individuals who are discriminated against. This is not that unusual of thinking or process. Such claims are typically involving many persons who would each have to mount a case separately for instance and the state's interest in preventing discrimination and being seen as preventing discrimination encourages it to take up large cases. The only reason this emerges is a circuit court split allowing for local or state courts to decide that this is not explicitly protected under RFRA laws (because it's not in the text usually). But a fairly standard understanding of how discrimination claims work would say that this is what is being discussed is private actors discriminating and being able to advance an affirmative defense against those claims.

There is a more compelling argument against this, to me anyway. That is that it allows religious claims to be advanced, but not necessarily taken at face value to override government interests like anti-discrimination, but does not necessarily allow non-religious claims. Say an atheist wants to discriminate for some reason, or perhaps more likely is accused of doing so. On the position of discrimination lawsuits, here I think it seems strange that a religious defense is rhetorically and ethically treated as morally superior to a secular defense and given some protection in law. In so far as religious adherents have specific practices, rituals, and requirements that are to be protected against government intrusion or permitted within reasonable accommodation by employers/businesses, and that was one of the primary intents of RFRA laws, that is perfectly understandable. Secular people tend not to have such rituals or requirements, so protecting such actions would be strange. In so far as religious adherents operate their business under the belief that it requires certain discriminatory actions, this is much less plausible as a defense. One that isn't typically being accepted anyway.

The difference of opinion for me is how to respond to that and whether to recognize it as a systemic problem in the market when it occurs or one that we can find a way around easily and resolve through the continuing and evolving standards on how society should treat one another fairly in our private transactions.